William Eichler 20 May 2019

Children with autism ‘let down’ by system, report finds

The system of support for young people with learning difficulties and autism is letting down some of the most vulnerable children in the country, according to the Children’s Commissioner.

A new report from Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has revealed that the number of children in mental health hospitals has increased in recent years, from 110 in March 2015 to 250 in February 2019.

According to the report, entitled Far Less than they Deserve, nearly three quarters of these children have autism but not a learning disability, and around one in seven have a learning disability only. One in seven have both.

The Children’s Commissioner warned that many of these children are detained in hospital for too long. She found that on average, children with autism and/or a learning disability had spent six months living in their current hospital, and eight months in inpatient care in total.

The report also revealed that children are being placed far from home, making it difficult for families to visit. Around 95 children were staying in a ward known to be more than 31 miles from home.

Nearly 60 – or one in four – children had a total length of stay of at least six months and were in a ward at least 31 miles from home.

The Children’s Commissioner also found that the quality of care in hospitals is ‘highly variable’, with some families reporting that the physical care needs of their children had been neglected.

‘There around 250 children with a learning disability and/or autism in England living in children’s mental health wards,’ said Ms Longfield.

‘They are some of the most vulnerable children of all, with very complex needs, growing up in institutions often far away from their family home. For many of them this is a frightening and overwhelming experience. For many of their families it is a nightmare.’

‘A national strategy is needed to address the values and culture of the wider system across the NHS, education and local government so that a failure to provide earlier help is unacceptable, and admission to hospital or a residential special school is no longer seen as almost inevitable for some children,’ she continued.

‘There has been report after report and promise after promise to address this issue and yet the number of children in hospital remains stubbornly high.’

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